As a writer, one gets asked a lot of questions. What do you write? Have I read anything of yours? How much do you get paid? Will you write this novel that I have a tremendous idea for? How many homes do you have? and so on. Most writers often get asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” and that’s one that I’ve missed. No one has asked me that one. I like to think it’s because they know I have a degree in Philosophy and am liable to start pontificating on the whole notion of ideas and utter something like, “Where does anyone get anything, really?” Some writers have different answers to the question. One science fiction writer — I believe it was Harlan Ellison, but I’m not sure and I’m too lazy to look it up right now — famously responded that he got all his ideas from an idea factory in Schenectady, New York.
Since I don’t have a subscription to the Schenectady Idea Factory Box, I rely on other sources. What those sources are… well, actually I have no idea. But last night while I was sleeping, I had a doozy.
Imagine this: a science fiction epic which is a retelling of Les Misérables in space! That’s basically the dream I had last night. It started (in my dream) as an idea for a role-playing game, but, in the dream, morphed into a novel and then a movie starring Peter Capaldi. It seemed perfect in my dream.
And it sounds perfect now that I am mostly fully awake.
Will I write my epic Les Misérables in Space novel? Probably not. There are too many other projects demanding my attention. Or maybe I’ll retool my “epic space opera with horror overtones” or my “secret big project involving World War One”. Or maybe not. Who knows?
Maybe I’ll combine them all into one!
I wonder if Victor Hugo ever had to deal with thoughts like these?
Yesterday some friends of mine and I went to the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. It’s one of my favorite places to be in the world. I’d say the Natural History Museum in London is a close second, but I haven’t been to that particular institution in over twenty years, so I can’t really say for sure.
When I was a kid, my family took me to the Academy on a fairly regular basis, and I remember loving the earthquake room, the solar system model, the Foucault pendulum, the Africa exhibit, and Hall of Man, and more. They remodeled the Academy about thirteen(!) years ago; I went there when they reopened in 2008 and was unimpressed, since they’d moved everything around including my one-favorite exhibits. But now I’ve been twice in the past two years, and I am loving it again.
I really wanted to be a scientist of some sort when I was in high school. A marine biologist, preferably, since my high school biology teachers were so good at their jobs and inspired me so well; however, college-level chemistry and math did me in. I did poorly in my first year and a half at UC Davis until I took James Griesemer’s course in the philosophy of the biological sciences in 1988, and fell in love with philosophy. I took a number of courses in the history and philosophy of science, and could have pursued that topic on graduate school, but… I didn’t. For a long time I regretted not following up on that, but now I’m in an MLIS program at San Jose State University, and longing to become a science writer and librarian at some sort of research institution: ideally, of course, the California Academy of Sciences. I would never have survived graduate school, in either a scientific discipline or in philosophy. The idea of specializing in one topic in a single field would have brutalized my tiny little brain. Librarianship seems like the perfect place for a generalist, an intellectual vagabond like me.
And now that I’ve sort of zeroed in on that career path at the age of 53, we’ll see if I have a chance to follow through.
I took a number of photographs at the Academy, including the one above of the T. rex with a cloth mask on its face. Here are some others:
I love jellyfish! I love the way they glide through the water, flowing tentacles in their wake. I learned that some jellyfish, such as moon jellies, qualify as plankton, which surprised me since I’ve always thought of plankton as the microscopic critters that float in the ocean not doing a whole lot except consuming food and providing food for other larger organisms… exactly the way these things do.
This cast of the jaws of a megalodon fossil impressed me. It’s 6+ feet of toothed joy, and you can really see the rows of teeth that would have grown into the jaw as older teeth fell out. It’s not the best picture, but I am pleased with it.
Finally, this is Claude, the albino alligator. It’s a much better picture when it’s scaled down rather than blown up. Some trick of lighting or some quirk of my phone’s camera sharpened and highlighted the image more than it should have. Claude’s been part of the Academy for as long as I can remember. An albino alligator would not have lasted long in its natural habitat, since its coloring would have made easy prey for a predator.
And this, of course, is the entrance to the Academy’s impressive rainforest exhibit. Fun fact: When I went to the Academy on my own one day in 1998, I caught a presentation on the rainforests that including the Rainforest Rap:
…which, unfortunately, cannot be embedded in this post, but if you go to the YouTube video I’ve linked to, you will, I promise, be enraptured.
What did I learn in the Academy’s rainforest exhibit? Primarily that I would not enjoy being a rainforest ecologist. It was humid and hot and by the end of it I was sweating pretty heavily, which is not something I enjoy. However, I am glad that there are people studying the amazing diversity and beauty of the tropical rainforests, and working to preserve them.
Anyway, as I’ve said, the California Academy of Sciences remains one of my favorite places on Earth. I will very likely go again soon, bringing yet more friends with me.